Let’s say you’re a staunch gay rights advocate. It’s everything to you. It eats away at you every day to witness gay people not having the same God-given rights that every other straight person has. You’ve made it your life mission to convert anyone and everyone who believes otherwise. So you gather all of these statistics and scientific data that all proves why gay parents are as effective as straight parents, how people are born gay and that it’s not a choice, why gay people getting married won’t unleash Hell on earth. You confront an anti gay individual, you state all of these facts in a very professional, reasonable manner.
You might walk away from this man thinking you have, indeed, shown him the light, that he was so blind before, that he had no idea about any of these facts and was just waiting for the right person to tell him the truth.
In reality? You might have further alienated that person.
Yeah, unfortunately, according to a group of Dartmouth researchers, you’ve probably just initiated what’s become known as the “backfire effect,” which essentially reports that if you hear an opinion that doesn’t match your own and it’s backed by figures, data, studies, and facts, you’re not only more likely to maintain your beliefs, but chances are you’ll become even more adamant about your opinion:
“…the process by which people counterargue preference-incongruent information and bolster their preexisting views. If people counterargue unwelcome information vigorously enough, they may end up with ‘more attitudinally congruent information in mind than before the debate,’ which in turn leads them to report opinions that are more extreme than they otherwise would have had.”
You might be feeling pretty depressed right now—I know I was the first time I heard about this study. I mean, how are we expected to advance as a society, move forwards as caring, empathetic human beings if we’re so clearly denying cold, hard facts laid out right before our eyes? What can we possibly do to ensure that people become more accepting of social issues as our country continues to progress?
Believe it or not, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has an answer—and a study from UCLA and Columbia University might just back it up.
The study, which was featured on a recent This American Life (a podcast) episode called The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind, involves canvassers going door to door in California, attempting to change people’s minds about gay marriage. As we’ve seen from the “backfire effect,” presenting well-researched evidence won’t go very far in changing people’s minds—but, miraculously enough, human interaction, stories, and empathy will.
For instance, when one canvasser backed the conversation away from the emotional and personal aspects of gay marriage and headed towards the “abstract ideas of equality and equal rights,” the anti-gay marriage subject being questioned immediately reinforced her beliefs. Which led to two revelations:
“This is what they learned—to stop telling people things. That they should have no road map for the conversation. Instead, the canvassers could talk personally about their own experiences. That seemed to help and connect with voters. But that, by itself, was not enough. The most important thing they could do was, they had to listen. And when the voter gave a clue about something that seemed real and emotional and important to them, find out more. See where it leads.”
“I think the big revelation was that our job was actually to go and give them the chance to talk about their own life. And realize that maybe that led them to conclusions that were a little different than they’d thought.”
That personal connection—that’s the key. You don’t shove facts and ideas down people’s throats, but instead present them with stories and allow them to draw their own connections, to realize independently that we’re all human and we all have fears and desires and hopes and dreams and that, “Now that I think about it…is it really so bad if gay people get married?”
From what I can gather, it’s all about subtlety. Spouting facts and data isn’t subtle, because you clearly have an agenda. It seriously makes me wonder how much of an impact documentaries doing nothing but relaying information can have on our collective mindset. But if you just make movies about people existing, living their lives through a story, and you happen to include a progressive message mixed within and never point it out? I think you might actually be doing quite a bit to raise awareness because you’re allowing people to draw their own conclusions about those characters. Viewers start to subconsciously connect the dots and have little to no idea that you have, indeed, just challenged an idea they find inherently wrong or immoral.
Which brings us to Neighbors 2.
I think it’s important to take a second and note the power this movie has: R-rated comedies are big—nah, huge in this country. Neighbors 2 pulled in over $20 million on opening weekend. It’s predecessor raked in—wait for it—$270 million at the box office two years ago. Neighbors 2 stars big celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne and Zac Efron and Chloë Grace Moretz. Critics, for the most part, embrace the movie. It is considered, by all accounts, a “hit,” and we can probably expect more sequels to come.
Now think about this: Whether you like the first Neighbors film or not, it’s hard to argue there is anything “progressive” about it. The film doesn’t feature gay characters or gender politics or interracial couples. It is, by all accounts, a pretty safe movie that’s content with potty humor and dick punches and airbag gags.
But you know what does feature “gay characters” and “gender politics” and “interracial couples”? Neighbors 2.
What’s amazing is this is not something this sequel had to do! Neighbors 2 could have played it safe, could have just had more potty humor and dick punches and airbag gags—but in addition to all of that, there are many of those smaller progressive elements mixed throughout. Because these small elements are so understated and overshadowed by the colorful, comedic elements that made the first film a success, the filmmakers were actually able to then take that formula for success and weave in these very subtle progressive storylines. Suddenly Pete isn’t just Teddy’s frat bro—he’s an openly gay man marrying the man of his dreams; Morgan isn’t just a rehash of Teddy’s character from the first film, but has these deep desires of transcending gender norms that strip sororities of power and identity; the couple buying Mac and Kelly’s home could have been just another white couple, but are instead an interracial couple that literally has no reason for being an interracial couple since they’re completely normal and have some funny lines and OH WAIT THAT’S THE POINT.
With everything in that last paragraph in mind, let’s take a look at an excerpt from the This American Life episode. The players are Ira Glass (host of the podcast), Mustang Man (somebody “on the fence” about gay marriage), and Dave Fleischer (the man trying to change Mustang Man’s mind):
Some people say, “When my wife died, it broke my heart.” Well, no. It didn’t break my heart. It put a hole in it. And it won’t heal. My wife’s been gone 11 years now. It feels more like 11 days. I’ve never gotten over my wife.
The canvasser here is actually Dave Fleischer, the guy whose idea it was to originally go out and talk to voters. And he does not say anything at all to this guy about ideals. He doesn’t pitch him any reasons to vote for gay marriage. Instead, he asks about the gay people in this guy’s life. And mostly, he just stands there as the voter just sort of connect the dots in his own life that he had never bothered to connect before.
And then marriage, I can even tell, just the way you talk about her–
I would want these gay people to be happy, too. I’ve got a gay couple across the street there. She’s a lesbian. And I get along just great with them. In fact, she parks her car in my yard because we got so many cars here, people have no place to park in the street. So I let her park here. And they’re wonderful people. They don’t bother anybody. You don’t see them trying to hit on other women or whatever. They’re happy. Just like I was with my wife.
You know this issue is going to come up for a vote again in the future.
I would vote for it this time.
Vote in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry? Why does that feel right to you?
Let’s see. [SIGHS] How would I say that? I would hope that they would find the happiness that I had with [? mine. ?] If you could have that kind of relationship with your partner or the other sex, I would say you’re a very lucky person. Because I know I had it. But yeah, that’s what I would wish on them. That they’d be as happy as I was with mine. Irrelevant by getting with the other sex.
How does Fleischer appeal to the Mustang Man? He doesn’t shove facts and statistics and polls down his throat—he appeals to the Mustang Man’s empathetic side. He allows Mustang Man to think about the gay people in his life, to draw his own connections, to realize on his very own that gay people deserve happiness as much as he does.
That right there, essentially, is what stories do. Stories (as we’ve discussed with Suffragette (and actually seen with another Seth Rogen movie!)) have this amazing power—backed by “Theory of Mind”—to alter the way we perceive the world. Neuroscience has actually researched and shown this! Placing characters in a setting and turning something into “fiction” actually allows us to discuss very real issues in a different context. And because we’re not primed to defend our opinions, we don’t actively engage our defenses and our subconscious ends up being challenged—much like the Mustang Man, who came to a conclusion about a perfectly nice gay couple that resembled his own marriage all on his own.
With the first Neighbors being such a success, it’s actually really amazing to see Pete—who we previously knew as a horndog that wanted to bang Teddy’s girlfriend—kissing another man and accepting his proposal for marriage. We already know Pete; we know his struggles and his aspirations to become “more than a frat dude”; we might even see a bit of our younger selves in Pete; essentially, we empathize with Pete. Think about the conflict a gay marriage opponent would experience during the moment Pete kisses another man, so happy to finally be marrying the man of his dreams—now compare all of that emotion with a boring documentary that does nothing but throw facts and figures at people who inherently disagree with the subject matter, who are already primed to defend their opinion.
The same would apply for Morgan’s storyline. If someone truly believed that sororities shouldn’t be allowed to throw parties because, you know, women and stuff, and then experienced this movie? And watched Morgan feel suppressed and hoping to make all of these girls’ lives more fun and exciting and achieve equality? Their viewpoint would genuinely be challenged.
So for me, the big takeaway of this film is the power and responsibility sequels hold. Based on the success of the first film, the filmmakers know for a fact that thousands upon thousands of people will see this movie. In essence, they’ve guaranteed that those thousands of viewers have been subtly integrated into these characters’ lives. Whether or not the film creates long-term effects in people who have problems with gay marriage or women expressing their individuality or interracial couples, this movie, according to UCLA and Columbia’s study, goes much further in advancing your average viewer’s mind than a movie candidly speaking out about gay marriage or women expressing their individuality or interracial couples would!
I see it as a challenge for successful franchises to not just remain content with pushing out the same product over and over, but to mix in messages that have the power to create actual long-lasting change in our society.